Weapons of political destruction

Thomas Sowell

7/24/2003 12:00:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

The Vietnam War showed how dangerous it is to allow a President of the United States to lie us into armed conflict, as Lyndon Johnson did by inflating a minor incident in the Gulf of Tonkin into a means of stampeding Congress into authorizing an escalation of military action in Southeast Asia.

If the current charge that President George W. Bush deliberately deceived Congress about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were to be taken seriously, it would be grounds for impeachment, if only as a warning to future presidents.

But just what has President Bush done to generate the current political and media frenzy? He spoke the now-famous 16 words in his State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Did these words mislead Congress into authorizing military action against Iraq? No -- because it authorized military action months before that speech was made.

As for weapons of mass destruction in general, what is the issue? Whether Iraq has produced them? Whether it had them last year when military action was authorized? Whether it still had them when the invasion began in March? Whether they are still there now? Whether they are likely to be found within a few months after the war ended?

There is no question whether Iraq has had weapons of mass destruction in general or was trying to develop nuclear weapons in particular. The Israelis bombed the Iraqi nuclear weapons facility more than two decades ago -- and the world has been a safer place because of it, despite the chorus of condemnation of Israel at the time.

Saddam Hussein not only had but used chemical weapons of mass destruction against both the Iranians and the Kurds within Iraq. So the issue is not what he has had or whether he had the ruthlessness to use them. The only issue left is: At what point in time did he stop having them -- if he ever stopped?

Intelligence gathering has seldom been an exact science. During World War II, the United States worked desperately to create the first nuclear bomb -- because of reports that Germany was ahead of us in nuclear research and had to be overtaken.

After the war, it turned out that German nuclear research was not nearly as advanced as we had feared. But, when it comes to nuclear weapons, if you wait until you have that "proof" which some politicians have been loudly demanding, you can wait until it is too late -- fatally and irrevocably too late.

The irony of all this is that Bush has not been shown to have lied about anything. However, the British Broadcasting Corporation, which broke this story, has. The BBC claimed an intelligence source but the only man identified as a source did not work for intelligence and is now dead, having committed suicide.

The forged documents cited by the BBC were not the only source of the information that the Saddam Hussein regime has been seeking to buy uranium -- and the British government stands by its conclusion, based on other sources.

To put all this in context, the BBC has been trying to sabotage the war in Iraq from day one -- so much so that British military commanders stopped broadcasting BBC "news" programs to their troops during the war and switched to a different station.

The bottom line is whether we are better off or worse off for having removed the threat of Saddam Hussein? Does anyone doubt that our demonstration of resolve and power in Iraq is what has made other terrorist-supporting nations start to back off?

Unfortunately, that effect is being rapidly eroded by politicians who know that their only chance of winning the 2004 presidential election is by discrediting President Bush. But undermining American unity and resolve in the face of nuclear threats from North Korea is the height of irresponsibility.

In a world in which 9/11 was only a sample of the dangers we face from fanatics and egomaniacs, who would love nothing better than having access to some of North Korea's nuclear material, we can find ourselves facing some huge life-and-death decisions in a matter of months. Cheap politicking and media sensationalism are hardly the kind of preparation we need.